Rally over marijuana arrests. (214203)
Credit: Contributed

A recent analysis of statistics from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services by police reform advocacy group found that marijuana arrests rose in the first six months of 2016 compared with the same period last year.

Analysis by the Police Reform Organizing Project concluded that Marijuana possession arrests rose almost 30 percent, 9,331 for the first six months of 2016 compared with 7,236 for the same period in 2015. Although New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and outgoing Police Commissioner Bill Bratton have discussed wanting to lower the numbers of marijuana-related arrests, PROP said that 90 percent of the NYPD’s marijuana possession arrests involved New Yorkers of color and that 86.5 percent of misdemeanor arrests in 2016 involved people of color, compared with 86.4 percent in the first six months of 2015.

PROP director Robert Gangi said in a statement, “While virtually all the arrest numbers demonstrate that NYPD arrest practices are marked by waste and racial bias, the statistics that stand out for us involve arrests for misdemeanor marijuana offenses. While Mayor de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Bratton, and other city officials have made widely publicized pronouncements about reducing punitive sanctions for marijuana infractions, the data present a different story. Arrests for marijuana are substantially on the rise—by nearly 30 percent for the first six months of this year.”

PROP’s report didn’t sit well with the New York Police Department, which was clear in the NYPD’s response to the AmNews requests for comment.

“The New York City Police Department enforces marijuana laws through observation, in response to 911 calls and community complaints,” said an NYPD spokesperson in an email to the AmNews. “Robert Ganji’s predictable and repeated attempts to malign the department lack any factual basis. We fight crime where we find it. Any other characterization is Gangji’s failed attempt to garner headlines and gin-up fear. We will continue fighting crime—and we are proud of our record making this the safest big city in America.”

City Hall went the same route when they responded to AmNews requests. When asked about the rise in marijuana-related arrests compared with a year ago, the administration went back to 2014.

“Marijuana arrests are down 40 percent since the 2014 reforms the NYPD put in place,” read the statement sent to the AmNews. “During this downward trend the city experienced a period in the beginning of 2015 that included an even more extreme dip in all arrests. Whether it’s this marijuana arrest policy, the addition of body cameras or the launch of neighborhood policing, the reforms made by this administration are strengthening the relationship between police and community while keeping New York the safest big city in America.”

Through May 31 in 2014, there were 12,172 marijuana arrests. Through the same date in 2015, the number dipped to 5,539. This year, it’s 7,257.

But since police officers were advised to issue summonses instead of arrests, summonses went up between 2013 and 2015 while arrests went down. But according to some people, Black and Latino New Yorkers are still unfairly targeted through these summonses.

“The continuing racially discriminatory arrests and summonses for low-level marijuana possession— which this administration said it would end—demonstrates that discriminatory policing and coercive, unconstitutional searches persist under Mayor de Blasio,” said Monifa Bandele, of Communities United for Police Reform, to the AmNews. “The need for true police reform and immediate passage of the Right to Know Act couldn’t be clearer. Speaker Mark-Viverito’s hollow backroom deal that guts real reforms that can end these abuses is a dangerous mistake and betrayal of communities’ best interests, rights and safety. It’s time to stop playing politics and put New Yorkers first by passing the Right to Know Act without any additional delay.”

Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance, acknowledged to the AmNews that marijuana arrests in New York are the lowest since the mid 1990s and the last six-plus years have seen a significant drop. But she also said that changing the laws doesn’t necessarily change how policing happens.

“We’ve seen how ticketing is something that has been used to criminalize large groups of people like in Ferguson, Mo.,” said Frederique. “To be clear, everyone is using marijuana at the same rate, but there’s rarely policing happening where white New Yorkers are getting arrested or getting a summons. What it shows and continues to highlight is the disparity in policing in the city and how there continues to be two New Yorks.”

Frederique told the AmNews all she’s looking for is equal policing of all New Yorkers and for certain groups to not have to walk around cautiously.

“The police will say that these people are smoking in public,” said Frederique to the AmNews. “That may be true, but you can walk to Prospect Park and Washington Square Park and see people doing the same thing. I’m not asking to give them summons at the rate they give us, but not to ticket people in East Harlem as much.”

Alyssa Aguilera, of VOCAL-NY, also told the AmNews that summonses have replaced arrests in the way that they unfairly target Black and Latino New Yorkers.

“Of course when compared to 2010, when New York City was the marijuana arrest capital of the world, it’s a good thing,” said Aguilera of the overall arrests. “In the aggregate, that’s great. But it’s concerning that we’re starting to see numbers move in the other direction. Time will tell whether this is a one-year blip, but it’s not something that seems aligned with the mayor’s progressive vision for enforcing marijuana laws.”

Aguilera said that despite the decrease in arrests, young Black and Latino New Yorkers are still being targeted, even though they don’t use or sell marijuana at higher rates than whites.

“When you’re white in an affluent community, marijuana is essentially legal,” Aguilera told the AmNews. “If you go to Prospect Park, Park Slope or Williamsburg, you know that people are using marijuana in every corner of New York City and it’s discriminatory how some New Yorkers are criminalized for it.”

Aguilera said she wants the de Blasio administration to use whatever leverage it has to lobby Albany to slowly change the penal codes so marijuana is decriminalized in New York State.